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The Collective Project
Camden People's Theatre
16th December 2014

★★★☆☆

I'll let you into a secret. I'm always excited about The Pensive Federation's shows. The Pen Fed (as all the cool kids are calling them), if you haven't come across them before, are a company which seek to put on good quality theatre with minimal time, props, cast and crew. Now, there are plenty of other people who stage work in similar difficult circumstances, that only when Plans A, B and C all fail. Getting a writer to come up with a new script, an ensemble to learn the lines, a director to whip them into shape - and all in only 12 days? And actually, not just one writer and director, but eight sets of them? You don't have to be good at maths to know that this should be "the show must go on" territory of any sane group of theatre makers rather than the route of choice.

Sane, maybe they're not. But the sort of individuals who are attracted to the Pen Fed are those who constantly want to reinvent themselves, to push themselves, to try their hand at different things. We see people who normally work as directors acting on stage, we see performers having a go at writing. Whenever you look at the programme for a particular outing of The Collective Project or The Significant Other Festival (another very similar time-pressured and mad project), you recognise a whole host of names, but not necessarily credited against the roles you might expect. Some of the best talent on the fringe circuit ends up here, and you get to see who's who and who's doing what.

In this staging, the first half is weaker than the second, notably in the writing. With short plays, often you don't have enough time to really get your teeth into the subject matter and that's okay, it's a limitation of the format, but in the first four plays - Squad, Faculty, Chapter and Bouquet - we don't always follow exactly what's going on. Oh, sure, we get the gist, but some of the finer detail and intentions are lost, and that's a shame.

Starting with Squad, written by Martin Malcolm and directed by Eduard Lewis, we have a team of - well, warehouse stockpickers probably - and a suspected shoplifter. The relationship between the suspect (Jared Rogers) and his brother (Michael Shon) is clear, as is dark side to the older employee (John Rayment), but we're a little fuzzy on the details of the sale and why people are running around trying to lay their hands on juicers and televisions. Black Friday?

In Bouquet, we understand that there's some kind of family trouble that Stevie (Hannah McClean) isn't party to, and whilst it comes across as a little mafioso, it's not entirely spelled out by writer Dan Nixon or director Laura Attridge. Rogers shines here as a shiny, withdrawn, borderline obsessive character, holding together the rest of the family and just getting on with what he understands: flowers. The character of his sister (Emily Aitcheson) is played chavvy, and actually, that's a recurring theme for the actress.

The idea of solidarity is explored well in Faculty, with role reversal of the teaching staff, and this is nicely contrasted with Isla Gray's Audience in the second half, but Sherhan Lingham's plot itself is a little thin. Alan Flannigan's Chapter is even more insubstantial, and rather than moves us, simply fades away into the night.

While Joe Johnsey very much plays up to his fool persona in the first four pieces, his comedy partner-in-crime, Daniel Collard, shows far more versatility in the second half, displaying a chameleon-like quality. Of particular note is his role in Kate Webster's Murmuration, a homeless man celebrating Christmas at a soup kitchen. Out of all the different roles here, he strikes us the most down-to-earth. He treats the female volunteer, Ros (Katherine Rodden) with an unexpected compassion and understanding, repaying his debt of many years by offering her a shoulder, should she want it.

Chloe Mashiter's direction is crisp, with a lovely use of dramatic pauses. Plenty of laughs arise from her sense of timing, such as Collard's impromptu carol singing and the other characters' refusal to join in.

Strong performances are also delivered by Rodden and Kim Burnett, but I wouldn't expect anything less from these women. Burnett gives a solid comic performance as a self-obsessed gameshow host Siobhan du Chant in Audience, and a sports underdog in Guleraana Mir's Bench. The latter is about a team of amateurs who never make it onto the field (but not to worry, the bench is "a surprisingly good place to sleep off a hangover").

Burnett shows a hidden vulnerability in Murmuration, her constant fidgeting indicating her character's discomfort. She gives an understated and yet striking performance there. And Rodden takes on a similar role in the same two plays, making us laugh as an overkeen, socially-awkward contestant in Audience and showing fragility in Murmuration as a volunteer disguising her own problems by opening herself up to other people's ones.

Despite a mishap with the programme, it is Camilla Whitehill's Host which closes the night, and this is a beautifully crafted piece of comedy, which allows the full ensemble to have some fun and end on a high. Here an established couple (Collard and Liggat), together with friends (Leanne Everitt and Neil J Byden) are trying to cheer up heartbroken Kate (Rodden) by engaging the mysterious services of the even more mysterious "Dirty Bird" (Burnett). Rhiannon Robertson oversees the unravelling of this plot and it does all come together in a delightfully funny conclusion.

If you look at the permanent members and collaborators of some of the freshest fringe companies, there's a lot of overlap. Imagine a Venn diagram and in that central space where these creative talents intersect, you have The Pensive Federation. To spot a few, there are faces from Kimbo Theatre and Dan and Joe this time, as well as contributors to this year's Camden Fringe. Now, this particular outing is not strongest version of The Collective Project I've seen to date, but it remains a brave idea, and one which is worth supporting.

When it comes to The Collective Project, you're not just going along to see eight new plays, you're essentially going along to get a feel for who's going to get your attention on the fringe circuit in the year to follow. Old favourites are reliable, but it's great to be inspired by new names too.

The Collective Project ran from 16th to 20th December 2014 at the Camden People's Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Warren Street (Northern, Victoria)



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